DETROIT – Northwest Airlines Inc. and its flight attendants will learn today if they’re headed for more talks after flight attendants overwhelmingly rejected a wage-cutting contract this week.

The rejection and more talks, Northwest says, would slow down what so far has been a fast-paced trip through bankruptcy while workers hold out hope negotiations would lead to a contract they could live with.

Meanwhile, Northwest’s ramp workers are expected to release results of their vote today for a wage-cutting contract, after the group rejected the company’s first offer in March.

For travelers, the turmoil building at Northwest could lead toward a turbulent summer travel season. Expected to be the busiest in Northwest’s history, the airline’s labor troubles open the door for flight reductions, labor stoppages or a possible strike.

Since Northwest filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in September, it is more than halfway through its goal of rejecting or negotiating cheaper leases on 400 planes.

Together with temporary union pay cuts, cuts to pay and benefits for salaried workers, and packed planes, the airline was able to make an operating profit of $53 million in April, although including reorganization costs it lost $295 million. Extracting long-term concessions from its unions has been a tougher task. The airline has reached deals with its pilots, ticket and reservation agents and three smaller unions.

But two large groups of workers – ramp workers and flight attendants – have rejected wage cuts and terms they say are unacceptable, such as more outsourced work and longer workdays.

“The tentative agreement was overreaching,” said Guy Meek, president of the Professional Flight Attendants Association. “We get a 21 percent pay cut. We are losing benefits, work rules, flying more hours, paying more to our medical,” he said, all adding up to 40 percent drop in wages and benefits.

The prospect of pay cuts at Northwest has caught the attention of frequent fliers.

“As a traveler, I am concerned because I do not like to see labor unrest and unsettlement,” said Terri Wright, 49, of Ann Arbor, Mich. The grants administrator for the Kellogg Foundation travels two weeks every month, all on NWA. She worries flight attendants will be exhausted, stretched too thin and “not as crisp for fliers as I would like them to be.”

At the same time, she said, “I’m a product of habit and want to stick with Northwest.”

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Northwest argues that time is running out for a deal, and union conflicts threaten to draw out new negotiations.

During the next month, flight attendants will decide if they should leave their union and join the Association of Flight Attendants or if they should keep their union and opt for a more amicable merger with Transport Workers Union of America.

Considering the prospect for delays, Northwest wants a ruling from the bankruptcy judge. But Northwest argues that it can impose terms.

According to bankruptcy law, the company is right, said John Pottow, assistant professor of law specializing in bankruptcy, at the University of Michigan Law School.

Vaughn Cordle, chief analyst for Washington D.C.-based Airline Forecasts LLC, said even after flight attendants rejected their contract, “Northwest will get the concessions one way or another. The question is will the concessions cause any disruptions in the operations? That’s the only leverage the flight attendants have.”

Northwest Tuesday filed a lawsuit against the union to keep the attendants from striking. But the PFAA contends it has the right to strike if Northwest imposes new terms, which would include more layoffs than the contract flight attendants turned down.

If the judge were to issue a ruling Friday, a strike or work slowdowns could start right away, although airline and bankruptcy experts say that’s unlikely. But the prospects for a strike escalate if the airline is successful in imposing new terms.

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Northwest flew through its mechanics strike last year, replacing striking workers.

The airline declined to comment on whether it plans to replace its flight attendants. Meek said he hasn’t seen evidence of that and said Northwest is not prepared to replace 8,500 flight attendants.

But there likely would be demand for the jobs. United Airlines has received 78,000 applications to fill more than 2,000 flight attendant jobs.

Replacing workers, Cordle said, would be a bad move. “They could aggravate the situation and cause more flight attendants to participate in some job action,” he said.


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